Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Second Life vs The World

Second Life may be the center of the (virtual) world to us, but it's like a once promising frontier boom town that's stagnating in the midst of a global explosion of modern metropolises. When I started out in Second Life in 2008, it seemed that it was destined for mainstream acceptance on the heels of incredible user growth, positive press, corporate initiatives by global corporations and what appeared to be a strong commitment by Linden Lab to invest in the future of the platform. 

I was lucky enough to attend a few of the big virtual world industry events in 2008 and 2009. (I still have a Second Life t-shirt I snagged at their booth.) The vision at the time was that the virtual world paradigm would eventually become as ubiqtuous as the 2D internet. I remember sitting at a table with executives from IBM, HP and Northrop, discussing how collaboration in virtual worlds would be a common business practice within a few years. On the consumer side, there were exhibits from dozens of vendors who were investing in new products and services, hoping to cash in on what they saw as a significant near term opportunity.

By the end of 2009, growth and enthusiasm begin to stutter and stall, including Second Life. Despite (or because of) Linden Lab's repeated attempts over the last four years to regain positive momentum, the downward trend continues. In 2012, Second Life lost over 10% of its regions. The handful of other surviving virtual worlds such as Twinity and Blue Mars have fared even worse. Although OpenSim gets a lot of attention in the virtual world community, it's just a blip on the map with an estimated 20,000 active users. 

During that same period of time, social networks, MMORPGs, casual gaming and even 3D chat services have been growing astronomically and winning users in the millions, tens of millions and even hundreds of millions. In short, the virtual worlds paradigm is an also-ran in the marketplace and there is no indication of a significant positive change for the foreseeable future. That's why my optimism is for the future we can't foresee, which will be the focus of the concluding post in this series.

(By the way, I realize that some reader will want to dispute the accuracy of the reported user statistics. I agree that the numbers in the chart are based partially on self-reported figures, various definitions of active users, and very different business models. But you can slice 25% from everyone's reported numbers and the underlying picture of Second Life vs The World would be the same.)


Anonymous said...

That's true (re your postscript...just finished reading it...was as if you read my 'objection'). Still, I'm very surprised to see such huge numbers for Farmville. No offense to those who partake it it, but that seemed to be one of many flashes in the pan. I tend to agree with you...and with Dale and Scarp. I think in ways you're saying the same thing. SL isn't "dead," the bell isn't tolling for its demise, there are plenty of people who love the grid - oldbies and newbies alike. The dream lives on, it truly does. What shape that dream morphs into is the question, the unknowable at this point. All worlds seem to be at the mercy of a drive-through culture. We all want things quick - and then even faster, please! - and easy - and accessible. Fast, Easy,'s a corny phrase but Phillip (one "l" or two?) describes it accurately with that one. So how do I login, rez into my look and space and context (place and conversation please) and then - say - share what I'm doing (photo or 30 second video) via my smartphone by touching its screen to the smartphone of my friends? (By the way if 5 second rez time annoys, imagine how fleeting attention spans are these days. Believe me 5 second rez times annoy me no end...I have the attention span of a gnat sometimes.) How do you take the 3D of the virtual experience so that the gridworld traverses different media in all worlds? Is that even the question, I don't know. But I do think the dream is alive just may have to morph into a variation of itself or something...just like everything else... you know...?

Yordie Sands said...

I suppose this falls into POV. I look at your graph and see text based Twitter and the first thought I had was, if SL were a glorified chat room then I could accept your analysis. yanno?

You could say that due to all the lag and sim crossing defects, people pretty much stand around and text and that might be the way things are for a lot of peeps. But that's not the virtual world I believe SL is.

Regardless of my objection, I can't argue with your fundamental principle that SL & perhaps virtual worlds in general are also rans in the marketplace. And like you, I'm inexplicably obtimistic that there is a future for us out there somewhere.

All we need is someone with vision to either create a product that crushes SL or someone with vision to takeover SL and silence the nonesense coming out of its boardroom. The operative part of this is, we need someone with vision.

Botgirl Questi said...

Michele: Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have ADD issues too, which is one reason I'm so attracted by mobile apps.

I don't think there is anything inherently valuable about our dream of an ubiquitous 3D web. What matters is how it might be used to improve our lives and realize our human potential.

Botgirl Questi said...

Yordie, I agree. Incremental improvements in Second Life won't push Second Life to significantly wider adoption. And I don't think a new platform that provides the same kind of experience for less money is going to do it either. (That said, either or both options would be great for current enthusiasts.)

If I was in charge of a virtual world start up, I'd focus on kicking ass for a specific use case and make sure the experience we provide delivers some significant and unique benefit. It could be watching live music, dating, collaborative meetings, or whatever.

Unknown said...

I think the pendulum swings back and forth - if you chase it you never catch it. Right now twitter rules - because it seasy, widely accessible and requires almost ZERO personal investment in time or energy. A 140 character commitment (and most are under 60). That is like eating a grapefruit diet..eventually you begin to reject the starvation for a more fulfilling experience. Will that be Second Life hard to tell... but if I were a betting man I would say the strong money is in developing and/or improving that welcome when the hangover of the twitter grapefruit diet goes away.

Anonymous said...

Two words:

Hype Cycle (see: Gartner).

How much of the early excitement around SL (and VWs) was based on realistic expectations, and how much on what Gartner calls "inflated expectations"?

As it stands, Gartner see VWs only now starting to climb out of the "Trough of Disillusionment" which results from the period of over-inflated hype about a new product. Further, they place the emergence of VWs as a widely-adopted, productive technology as still being 5-10 years hence.

It is interesting that SL has, to date, precisely followed the Hype Cycle: we've had the trigger point (2006), the ride up to the Peak of Over-inflated Expectation (07-09), followed by the crash into the Trough of Disillionment.

Of course, this doesn't mean that SL (or OpenSim or any other VW as we know them today) will survive, obviously; there is still a long way to go. Where SL is concerned there is still a valid debate as to whether or not the product is heading in the "right direction".

Although that said, it's fair to say the debate could just as well be about what that "right direction" actually is. Just because LL are taking the platform in directions some are uncomfortable with doesn't invalidate what the company is trying to achieve. Certainly, it doesn't mean their own expectations are any more (or less) valid than those held by LL. (Although I admit, this statement does presuppose is a long-term strategy underpinning LL's actions WRT SL - which is again hard to discern.)

For my part, I doubt that SL - assuming it does survive - will ever meet the over-inflated expectations seen through 07-09.
But it may yet manage to survive as a niche "leisure" product as well as stand as the foundation upon which more focused platforms of the kind you suggest are grown (and which Humble has sort-of indicated LL are looking at).

Unknown said...

umm .. we might be missing a critical variable in the development of virtual realms - the interaction and innovative evolution of technology+consciousness. Assuming the technical barriers to adoption (hi-end gear & lots of hi-speed bandwidth) will remain as a constant is erroneous imho. Assuming our consciousness will remain "separate" from the hardware or the bandwidth is also debatable. It is obvious from the massive adoption of more accessible virtual realms that humans like the space and easily develop virtual extensions of their physical identities, creating meaningful personal/professional relationships. How sophisticated and immersive virtual "places" become is dependent on the evolution of our conscious creativity. The question is not whether virtual worlds are has-beens, but whether humanity will realize that "user-created worlds" (versus "designer games" and "niche" product tools) is where we can collaboratively create a new place for consciousness to Be. Perhaps user-created virtual worlds can effectively augment the has-been physical world cultures and economies that are caught in ancient self-destructive behaviors and conflicts?? Humans have literally created a new place to human - so shall we mindlessly replicate violent conflicts and competition with games and business apps or shall we collaboratively choreograph a new dance??